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New workout brings waves to Midwest


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he stereotype of a slacker surfer dude lazing his days away riding waves is a misnomer.

Surfers need to be in peak physical condition in order to push up from a paddling position, balance on an unpredictable surface and carve against the power of a wave.

They need strong core muscles, solid legs and strong arms in order to ride the waves.

The unique fitness potential that surfing provides has typically been restricted to the coasts. But with an advanced exercise series, even those in landlocked Indiana can get the sculpted surfer look.

SurfSet is a workout that gets people as close to riding the waves as possible without getting wet. Users isolate their core and stabilizer muscles on a special simulation surf board, as well as adding in elements of yoga, cardiovascular training and stretching.

“Surf emulation is fun, its functional, and you can’t really get it with anything else,” said Sean Bartram, owner of Core Pilates and Fitness and certified SurfSet trainer. “The classes combine high-intensity interval elements with strength and flexibility training to create the long lean athletic body of a surfer.”

In the span of an hour, SurfSetters work on jumping from their stomachs up into a surfing position. They make-believe paddling through the waves, and tilt back and forth on the board to carve through imaginary water.

At times, they’re doing pushups and squats on the board itself, with the element of balance creating extra challenge to common exercises.

Participants get cardio training with a series of jumps, lifts and fast-paced leg movements.

They’re asked to isolate their abdominal muscles with planks and leg kicks.

By the end, it’s not uncommon to feel as if you’ve just finished battling famous surfs at Mavericks or Bonzai Pipeline.

“It’s all about balance. You’re on a moving board, and you’re constantly working all of those tiny muscles that stabilize you,” said Mary Worline, who teaches SurfSet at Core Pilates and Fitness. “You can get a little bit of everything — balance, core stabilization and cardio at the same time.”

Despite its sun-soaked inspiration, SurfSet was developed by a former professional hockey player. During the hockey season, Mike Hartwick would weight train in the gym.

But in the summers, he found the intensity of surfing was both a fun and effective way to stay fit and strong. The problem was, he’d lose the sculpted surfer look in the winter. So he worked with Sarah Ponn, a personal trainer and fitness instructor, to build a device that simulated the feel of riding the waves.

The board does as much as possible to simulate the instability of water in a gym setting. A plastic surfboard is mounted on a base containing three rubber Bosu ball.

Elastic straps keep the board tethered on the balls without spilling the rider off. But just staying upright requires focus on balance and developing the tiny muscles in the legs and feet that you don’t use on dry land, Bartram said.

“The board itself obviously adds an element of fun to the workout but also function,” he said. “The instability of the board requires the client to engage and activate the core and also many stabilizing muscles throughout the body.”

The training took off after being featured on the entrepreneurial reality show “Shark Tank.” After starting SurfSet on the West Coast, it has slowly spread throughout the country. Core Pilates and Fitness, a Carmel-based studio, has been featuring it for more than a year.

Currently the only studio in central Indiana to feature it, Bartram was convinced the blend of core movements and cardio training would fit in perfectly with his other high-intensity classes.

“We had already done work on stability boards, BOSUs. The surf emulation, being able to tap into the side of it was appealing,” Bartram said. “We have our unique blend of reformer Pilates, TRX, high-inten, all of which have a focus on core stability, and evolution of that, seems to go really. We put an emphasis on functional fitness to all of our clients here.”

He offers two classes each week, and typically draws three or four people to each. Bartram has found that people like adding SurfSet into their overall workout profile, not specifically focusing on it.

The workouts are tough, he admits. Not everyone is used to the constant movements and unusual poses, particularly when done atop an unstable surfboard.

But the results are the lean, strong body of a surfer, just in time for the start of the summer.

“It’s harder than people expect. They don’t realize how unstable the boards are,” Bartram said. “But everyone wants that long, lean look of a surfer. That’s very in right now, as well as being incredibly functional.”

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